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Your Turn: Region-locking should stay in the past

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The second-edition Nintendo Entertainment System did away with regional safeguards altogether.

The second-edition Nintendo Entertainment System did away with regional safeguards altogether.

Region locking (also known as "region lockout" or "region coding") has always been an interesting (and annoying) concept to me. Where does it come from? Why do we have it? Is it still necessary?

The origins of region locking actually come from the different types of technology we use in different regions of the world. Here in Australia (and Europe for the most part) we use a system called PAL (phase alternating line), which runs at 25 frames per second and has 576 visible lines. In North America, Japan and South Korea they all use NTSC (National Television System Committee) which runs at 29.97 frames a second and have 483 visible lines. PAL is slower, but has higher resolution. Plus all of these regions also have different voltages.

This meant that when companies released a console in a different region, they would have to conform to that particular technology. Originally these companies weren’t trying to lock people out; it was simply practical. If you tried to put an NTSC Atari 2600 cartridge into a PAL console you’d get an array of diagonal flashing colours or it simply wouldn’t work at all. (Yeah, I’ve tried this.)

The first console to actively use a lockout chip was the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Whilst this was mainly for reasons of piracy, it also meant that people were unable to play games made for the essentially identical Japanese Famicom system. The NES games had more pins (due to the lockout chip) and the physical cartridges were much bigger. However, third party adapters were later developed to switch between them.

If you disabled the lockout chip (achieved by snipping the fourth pin from the left on the bottom row of the 3197A chip) you were able to play unofficial titles, as well as get rid of the blinking light issue. It also allowed you to play a small number of NTSC games on a PAL NES, and vice versa. The NES 2, which loaded cartridges from the top rather than the front, got rid of the chip altogether and was therefore region free.

Other than lockout chips, the physical cartridges themselves were used as region locks during the 8 and 16 bit console eras. A good example of this was the American SNES and Japanese Super Famicom: they both output to NTSC, used the same motherboard, and both used a similar voltage. Nintendo of America decided to use the same motherboard, but made their own version of the casing, and used squarer cartridges. Thus Japanese cartridges wouldn’t fit. Clever gamers found a way around this though; they simply opened up the Super Famicom cartridges and put the naked game board directly into the cartridge slot.

True region locking came in around the same time of early DVDs. Unlike PAL and NTSC, DVD regions were used for one particular global area, rather than one kind of technology.  This was advantageous for the console makers as they distributed their own games and thus had even more pricing power. They could also use region locks to try and negate the internet’s allure of cheaper overseas games.

It should also be said that it’s a lot easier to erase region locks on DVD players than on game consoles. However, third parties have often released unauthorised ways of getting around the region lock in the past.

So why have region locking? There are a number of different reasons, with the main one being that it gives the companies greater control over their product. Many gamers know that products are often cheaper outside of Australia, so the manufacturer tries to make gamers buy locally. Companies argue that this also helps combat piracy, but consumer groups argue that this can lead to pricing discrimination and anti-competitive behaviour.

Sometimes there are also legal concerns; some games aren’t sold in certain regions do to censorship laws. This was even the case in Australia until last year when we finally got a games censorship system that allowed R rated games.

Effectively though, these companies want to get rid of the ‘Grey Market’. This is when people import legal, yet unauthorised or unofficial products from overseas. The internet has made this much easier of course, and some people will even go to the extreme of buying an American console and importing all the games.

Often the big loser in region locking is of course the gamers. Being in Australia we get hit with not only higher prices, but often with a reduced library of games, as we are often considered a smaller market, although this has changed a little with digital distribution.

The truth is that the beginnings of region locking continue to affect us to this day, even when physical media is no long part of the equation. Australians pay much more on most online services for what is the exact same product overseas.

However gamers have always been a clever bunch of people. Over the years people have made adapters, converters, altered the physical media and even re-written the core software just so they can play games outside their region. This is often rewarding because it can open up a whole new library of games and expand your own knowledge and collection.

In terms of the companies, I can understand wanting to have some control over their product, but to this day there hasn’t been a convincing argument for the higher prices we pay here in Australia. They know they can get away with it.

The consoles from this generation and the last that are region free are the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, and Xbox One.

I’ll end this article with a personal gripe. While the Nintendo Wii and Wii U are region locked, and this is very annoying and out of step with the rest of the industry, my problem is with their handheld systems.

The very first Game Boy was region free, as was all its later incarnations. The original DS and DS Lite were also region free. However when the DSi came out, they started region locking their systems and games. And 3DS is completely region locked.  (Mine is Japanese, and I still find it cheaper to just import games rather than buying them here.)

But my point is these are portable gaming systems, and people travelling the world bring these with them. If you can’t buy a game in the region you bring your device to, then you’re stuck playing the few games you did you bring, and that can get boring. If you get bored of your device, then you’re more likely to stick it away somewhere and forget about it. If Nintendo thinks you’re going to buy another one just for the region you’re in, then that is almost the height of arrogance.

There is wanting to control your product and then there is being a dick about it. Come one Nintendo, you’re alienating the few people left that actually have some sort of brand loyalty towards you. Pull the finger out.

Okay, I'm done ranting. I'm old, it took a lot out of me.

At the shallow end of gaming gene pool the 3DO and the Phillips CD-I were both region free (and crap). I have a 3DO and I think I’ll go home and play it tonight. You know, in defiance.

 - Andrew “ProdTally” Yoshimura

Andrew runs the retro gaming site www.bitseizure.com, which is why he has a 3DO. You can yell at him on twitter: @ProdTally He has a 3DO. He deserves it.

Screen Play readers can submit articles and game reviews for consideration in Your Turn and Your Review using the email address SPYourTurn@gmail.com. The best blog post published on Screen Play between 1 March and 31 March 2014, as judged by James Dominguez, will win a PS Vita handheld console from Sony Computer Entertainment Australia. This is a wi-fi unit, and has a recommended retail price of $349. The winner will be announced in the first week of April. Only Australian residents are eligible and the judge's decision is final.

twitter Screen Play is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez

8 comments so far

  • Nice article Andrew.

    I think that in ten years time we'll look back on region locking as the last gasp of companies holding on to their "territory". It's not just gaming that is experiencing this issue. You only have to look at the recent comments made by head of QuickFlix, Stephen Langsford, where he states that Netflix themselves should be doing more to prevent access to their services from overseas.

    Effectively (just like games publishers) you have regional distributors and local retailers who have taken their "piece of the pie" for so long and are fighting the change to a global market. Perhaps the loss of these intermediaries will finally lead to cheaper local digital prices?

    Commenter
    Scubafinch
    Location
    The Rocks
    Date and time
    March 13, 2014, 8:27AM
    • I absolutely LOATHE region locking both as a collector and a gamer.

      What gobsmacks me though is the fact that you *will* get people who argue *for* region locking as good thing as it promotes competition, anti piracy or something along those lines.

      Frankly if anybody wants proof of how much the "gray market" improves sales vs sales "lost" due to piracy. I invite people to have a look at my DS library vs my 3DS library vs my Vita Library. I can count the amount of games I have on 3DS on one hand at this point. I love the hand held to bits but I'm struggling to get games I want on 3DS because it's either eShop only or just won't be released here. Whereas my DS library is huge from all the other JRPG titles that either never make it here or are hard to find in the wild. Also my Vita's library has ballooned past my 3DS collection and I've had the 3DS way longer!

      Now before someone says "but! 3DS has X game!" I'm well aware of those must buys Mario, Zelda, Pokemon, etc. the thing is my preference is always Rhythm and JRPG. When I see a nice new JRPG like say Y's on the Vita VS Pokemon/Mario my money goes to the JRPG. If I can't get that specific game on the console/handheld then I look at the other games I *can* get and play. And as a collector "cheap" isn't even in the equation for me since I'm a sucker for LE/CE's anyway. But that Project Mirai 1st Release Ed us of no use to me if I can't play it can I? So my money goes to the Project Diva F2 DX release instead...

      Commenter
      RocK_M
      Location
      I want chinese take-away!
      Date and time
      March 13, 2014, 9:49AM
      • Not to get too political, but it's worth pointing out the double standard. Companies like to offshore labor to low cost countries and profits to low tax countries, and talk about the benefits of globalisation, but curse those pesky consumers trying to buy those products at the cheapest source!

        Commenter
        Lucid Fugue
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        March 13, 2014, 10:22AM
        • Hence the whole concept of "Free Trade" is for all purposes a scam.

          It's meant to technically open doors for both parties to allow goods to pass and w/o the red tape of preferential taxing and whatnot. All fine in paper in theory. But when your talking about one obviously stronger market compared to a "smaller" one it's piss obvious who's gonna be calling the shots here "if you want us to sell/buy then you gotta do X". And at the same time we loose out on tarriffs and taxes because this agreement is supposed to be for "our" benefit.

          Commenter
          RocK_M
          Location
          I want chinese take-away!
          Date and time
          March 13, 2014, 4:46PM
      • What are you talking about? There is not enough region locking. Region locking needs to be implemented more widely across more products and countries. Actually scratch the countries bit, Australia's doing a bang up job region locking this country from those nasty nasty invaders.

        But products. More products need to be region locked.

        You: "Hmm, yes I'll buy these Nike shoes from America, they're pretty cheap."
        Nike: "BAM. Region locked"
        You: "WTF! Why would these be region locked?"
        Nike: "Those shoes won't run in Australia. You need to buy Australian running shoes."
        You: "How do shoes that work in America not work in another country"
        Nike: "Thank you for purchasing Nike"

        See. How is this not an ideal scenario?

        Commenter
        Smoolander
        Date and time
        March 13, 2014, 2:03PM
        • Next there will be even more region-locking - states and territories. Won't be able to buy that car in NSW because it's locked to the NSW roads. Have to buy a region all car to travel (or hack it).

          Commenter
          Joka
          Date and time
          March 13, 2014, 4:05PM
        • I don't think you're taking this idea far enough. These illegally immigrating region locked media are STEALING JOBS from our local games industry. They should be locked up behind barbed wire in a small island off the shore of Papua New Guinea.

          Stop the Post!

          Commenter
          Ronny
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          March 16, 2014, 12:59PM
      • Believe it or not that's kind of true with NSW and Queensland trains. They don't cross the border because the track size is different.

        Queensland have region locked their trains!

        Commenter
        AC
        Date and time
        March 13, 2014, 4:27PM

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